Send, Send For Yourself, Send To Yourself

In an era of identitarian politics and a general fascination with identity writ large — be it racial, religious, gender, sexual, ethnic, or another — I keep returning to the words written by Pete Townshend and belted out by Roger Daltry on the title track to The Who’s 1978 album, Who Are You.

Interestingly, no question mark appears on the album jacket. It is a statement, not a question. But for this week’s Torah reading, it IS a question, and questions are often more interesting and useful than answers.

The question in this week’s reading, like that for Townsend and Daltry, is, who are you? And the interesting part — the real wisdom — is more in how we answer than in any particular conclusion at which we arrive. It all starts with two Hebrew words found in the second verse of the reading (Numbers 13:2): shelach lecha. The phrase’s usual translation of “send” misses the full literal meaning of the two-word phrase: send for, or to, yourself.

What can God mean when commanding Moses — and it is definitely a command — to send men to scout out the land of Israel “for himself?” Why not simply say “shelach” or “send?” Many classical commentators explain this as God telling Moses to send the spies for his own needs, “for himself,” not because God actually needs people to spy out the land. And there is something beautiful and powerful in that: it blurs the line between being commanded by God and being compelled by our own inner needs. This is a story that affirms that both are forms of sacred expression. That alone would be a game changer, but as the story unfolds, things get even more interesting.

It turns out that the spies are sent only not for Moses’s self, or the people’s selves, but to themselves. The 12 spies who go to scout out the land may be going to another place, the land of Israel, but as is so often the case, they are really going to themselves. It’s “Wherever you go, there you are,“ but written 3000 years earlier.

The spies arrive in the land, and 10 of the 12 of them are overwhelmed by fear and a sense of inadequacy regarding the Israelites’ ability to enter Israel and make it their home. Upon their return, all of them except Joshua and Caleb explain in Numbers 13:31-33:

“We cannot attack that people, for it is stronger than we.” Thus they spread calumnies among the Israelites about the land they had scouted, saying, “The country that we traversed and scouted is one that devours its settlers. All the people that we saw in it are of great size; we saw the Nephilim there—the Anakites are part of the Nephilim—and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.”

They seem like grasshoppers to themselves. They see themselves as small and incapable, and so they assume that is how others see them and is who they are — too small and incompetent to claim what is theirs. We have jumped from sending, to sending for ourselves, to sending to ourselves.

And isn’t that the way it pretty much always is? Or, as we say to those who travel with us in Clal’s Stand and See Fellowship, journeys to the Holy Land are more about the insights than the sites themselves. We go looking in other places for so many things, and seeking and discovering are always valuable. But as this story reminds us, what we see is likely as much a function of how we see ourselves as it is of anything else.

So yes, it is good to feel sent on purposeful missions, and it is important to appreciate that different people have different mission needs. But perhaps most important of all is to recall that whatever we see, we see through our own eyes, and the cost of forgetting that can be as huge as the payoff for remembering it.

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